At the prime minister’s whim

by Aaron Wherry

Amid speculation that the Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament, Lori Turnbull advocates for the reforms she, Mark Jarvis and Peter Aucoin laid out in Democratizing the Constitution.

The 2012 prorogation would be substantively different. First, there is no obvious political land mine to avoid. Second, the Conservatives have demonstrated how majority status confers an immunity of sorts from even the most scathing criticism from the opposition benches. These factors make a potential upcoming prorogation less necessary from a political standpoint, but the fact remains: We live in a country where a prime minister can shut down the House, the pre-eminent institution of our parliamentary democracy, on a whim, for no particular reason.

In our new book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, we argue that prorogations should occur only with the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House. This would place the balance of power in the hands of elected representatives, where it belongs. The House would have to consent to turning the lights off. If we allow the prime minister to unilaterally decide whether and when the House can perform its scrutiny function, we reverse the basic logic of responsible government, which dictates that the government must be accountable to the House. The two-thirds majority threshold is high enough to nearly always necessitate multiparty support.

Lori and the Globe make the common error of actually shortchanging Mr. Harper in this regard: as noted earlier this year, he has prorogued Parliament three times already, not twice.




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At the prime minister’s whim

  1. While I’m no fan of this proroguing-on-a-whim thing, seems to me this prorogation, if it happens, will be textbook. The government will have accomplished what it wanted to accomplish, ie. killing the gun registry, passing the crime bill, etc., and they’ll be about to embark on a new agenda (whatever the hell that is). So, we get a new session, with a new Throne Speech, etc. Seems logical and non-nefarious to me.

    Unless I’m mistaken (which is a definite possibility).

    • Indeed. The nefarious part comes in the Throne Speech supported by a majority gov’t of whipped MPs.

      Whether it’ll happen or not, I don’t know. Part of me thinks it won’t, because it’s too early, so the changes Harper makes will have enough time for people to feel them before the next election. On the other hand, part of me thinks it will because there’s enough time for people to forget that things were different before.

      Either way, if he does, this is the Throne Speech where Harper will have to pay back the true believers for the past decade of swallowing whatever he’d shoot out.  Even CPC members will only stay on their knees for so long, after all.

      • Well, what he says or does after prorogation is another matter… But it’s traditionally used when the gov’t wraps up its legislative agenda and is ready to move on to something else. Harper is near that point.

        As far as that throne speech, I’m as interested as you are as to what’s going to be in it. Almost as interested as all those Tory backbenchers who are as in the dark as we are.

        • The house has been sitting for all of three months. He’s already done? 

          • With some 5 years of foreplay, is it any surprise he’d shoot his wad so quickly once he had the chance?

    • At some point, surely, it becomes difficult for a majority government to b1tch about the opposition “delaying” government bills, when the goverment keeps proroguing itself.

      • I agree, and I even think that ‘point’ has already come and gone. That said, if the government is going to prorogue after its legislative agenda has been accomplished — and there won’t be anything dying on the order paper to cause those delays — it’s fine. They’re not avoiding any controversial issue, they’re not causing additional work and they’re not delaying anything (in sharp contrast to the last prorogations).

    • The problem with this prorogation is that it follows the limiting of debate on several items of business. It’s one thing to prorogue after the government completes its agenda for a session – it’s another to cram that agenda into the tightest possible timeframe and then shut the session down altogether.

      • Yeah, but the government IS on the verge of completing its agenda for the session. I don’t like how they handled their agenda, and I don’t agree their agenda, but it’s done (or on the verge of being done). I don’t think prorogation will preclude the opposition from continuing to protest against those heavy-handed tactics when the next session begins. To me, it just seems to be a very logical and justifiable time for prorogation.

        • I suppose.

          I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with “We crammed the entire legislative agenda that we campaigned on into 6 months by using time allocation and closure to limit debate, so now we need to prorogue to give us time to come up with a whole new agenda that we DIDN’T campaign on to implement over the next 4.5 years”.

          Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer governments who put their agendas before the Canadian people before and during elections to those who develop and  introduce their agendas AFTER the election.

          • Oh, I’m not comfortable with it either, trust me. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a natural legislative break coming. Frankly, I would like to see a new throne speech so the agenda is laid out in the open for all to see — love it or hate it.

          • I absolutely agree with this.  My hope is that there are many people like us among those who voted for Mr. Harper last time.

            My expectation is that there are not.

    • The question is, will Harper ever bother to re-open Parliament?

  2. Based on feverish NDP rumours, we think Canada should completely change powers of Prime Minister …. 

    Is article anything more than infomercial for authors to advertise their book?

    • So you disagree and believe the PM should be allowed to prorogue parliament whenever s/he likes?

      • Yes. I prefer PM to prorogue whenever they wish than let GG decide what’s best. 

        One person is elected and can be held to account while other unelected lickspittle. 

        I am willing to bet authors of book are Liberals – what sense does it make for 2/3 to vote to prorogue? If majority government has 200 seats, it can do as it wishes but if majority government has 180 seats than it can’t prorogue.

        How does that make sense?

        • Seig Heil, eh?

          Nobody’s suggesting here that the GG decide. They’re suggesting that the house decide. Apparantly you don’t like democracy in action though. Gotcha.

          A 2/3rds vote is quite common for things that can drastically effect how an organization is running/being run. It works to ensure that the organization is of a strong united mind about the action. Shutting down the organization for a time certainly counts among these things.

          • “Seig Heil, eh?”

            Que?

            It is so easy to spot left wing types, I am always a Nazi because I prefer our PM to rule and be held to account for his actions rather than have unelected mandarins make decisions.

          • I wrote that line before you added your third paragraph, thus stating that you thought all the other MPs were just lickspittle and you wanted only the PM to handle things.

            And how the hell do I hold the PM to account for his actions? I don’t live in Calgary Southwest.

            edit: bloody hell double posting.

          • I wrote that line before you added your third paragraph, thus stating that you thought all the other MPs were just lickspittle and you wanted only the PM to handle things.

            And how the hell do I hold the PM to account for his actions? I don’t live in Calgary Southwest.

          • No; Thwim is addressing the fact that you’d rather have ONE person (the PM) dictate to the House, rather than let the House make the call.

            All those other folks warming the benches on both sides… the elected representatives of the people of the nation… MIGHT want to have some say, rather than leaving it to the sole discretion of Dear Leader.

            The GG was not raised in either Wherry’s piece or Thwim’s comment, and thus is irrelevant to the discussion.

          • “Seig Heil, eh?”Que?It is so easy to spot left wing types, I am always a Nazi because I prefer our PM to rule and be held to account for his actions rather than have unelected mandarins make decisions

            Nazi allusions notwithstanding, dare i ask: Just what in the name of all that’s holy are you on about?

            And is there some significance in the fact you appear to think definite articles are verboten? In the UK i believe this is still taken as a sign of belonging to or identifying with the privileged class of Torygraph reading, upper class twit society, commonly referred to as the ruling or usless class. 

          • “ In the UK i believe this is still taken as a sign …. ”

            That’s funny because both my grandmother and my missus put flea in my ear about grammar a few weeks ago.  I write at least a thousand words a day for work and I sacrifice grammar for speed. I am starting to forget normal english, apparently. 

            Also,  articles are for plebes!

            People’s personality decides what politics they support and it is easy to identify people – Liberals call me stupid even tho we often agree on issues and left wing types call me Nazi/Hitler. Liberals think I am stupid, NDP think I am evil.

          • How does allowing the PM to shut down Parliament for up to a year constitute holding him to account? 

            Parliament should be supreme in our democratic system, and Parliament should decide when its session is complete.

  3. So debate needed to be shut down on bills why, then? 

    • Six months is plenty of time to enact the agenda the Tories told the electorate about.  Designing and passing a new agenda that the people of Canada are completely in the dark about will take more time.

      Every minute the Tories waste on the stuff they campaigned on is one less minute they’ll have to implement all the stuff they DIDN’T campaign on.

  4. I agree that this potential prorogation would be the kind that prorogation was designed for.  No biggy.  EXCEPT, for the whole, “we don’t have time to properly debate the massive omnibus crime bill” thing, which granted was last week’s talking point and I notice truthiness has an expiry date.

    As to Lori, Mark and Peter’s proposal, this would be an ideal test of same.  Because I would expect the opposition to give him the 2/3rds votes.

  5. a two/thirds vote sounds like a great idea to me. And part of the process should include the requirement that the moving party (i.e. the PM, as I assume it will still require him/her to bring the motion forward) giving an account of all bills that will be terminated and thus needing to start over, so that
    (a) all members are fully cognisant of the impact of their vote
    (b) all interested voters will be fully cognisant of the impact of their vote

    • Regardless of the house vote or not, that bit about listing the bills is a great idea. Ideally, the Governor General’s announcement of the prorogation should include that list.

      Or should that go to the Speaker of the House? That would make more sense considering that his office should know what the bills and motions currently in progress are, and where they’re at. Either way, that’s definitely a policy I think some party could include in the smaller print of their campaign promises to pick up a few votes.

      • Why thank you Thwim! Glad you liked it!

    • I would be careful what you wish for.
      If a two-thirds vote is required for such items of process like prorogation, then the opposition would also insist a two-thirds majority will be needed to pass votes on Bills in the house.
      If the actions of the opposition in the past few years are any indication then they would take this opportunity to paralyze the House.
      That would mean that the voters would then have to take the opportunity in the next election to ensure the opposition would receive less than one-third of the seats.

      • Evidence that this would happen?

        Other than the tinfoil wrapped around your head that is?

      • “If the actions of the opposition in the past few years are any indication then they would take this opportunity to paralyze the House.”

        That’s how far we’ve gone down the slippery slope i guess. When merely applying the rules as they exist, as they’ve always been applied prior to Harper, is taken as evidence of bad faith.

      • No; it’s a different thing entirely. The vote on proroguing would be the House coming to a consensus on whether the work of the session was complete or not.

        You may think it cynical of me, but I really don’t see politicians volunteering to sit longer than they absolutely have to, so the only time the ruling party would likely fail to get the vote they want is if the government is trying something under-handed, like killing a private member’s bill it doesn’t like but doesn’t want to be seen voting down.

        As we saw during the CPC minorities, the current set-up allows for misuse and abuse of proroguing. The requirement for a vote of the House – and a two-thirds majority – would prevent misuse of this power and restore it to its intended use. It’s a first step back to what Parliament should be; a first step in wresting power from the PMO and the cabinet and giving the MPs some real relevance again, instead of serving as the equivalent of seat-fillers at the Oscars.

        • KB and kc:  That`s just my opinion that voters would punish the opposition if they thought that the majority of Parliament were being prevented from governing, especially passing bills that have been talked about for years.

          I happen to think the  “bickering  ” remark Harper made in the debate was one of the main reasons why he gained those extra 20 seats for majority, and if the opposition were to find a way to continue to obstruct the government in this new Parliament, they might be further punished. People are just wanting to find a way for these guys to govern competently but quietly.

          Keith–in your second paragraph I don`t think you are being cynical, however, I believe you are mistaken if you think the opposition would not take the available opportunity to vote against the government for strictly political reasons.

          And kc  ” applying the rules as they exist ” should not have permitted the opposition to hold that vote last winter where they held the government in contempt. The bickering and contempt thing is a vote-loser for the opposition.

          • You’re inventing things. No one proposed requiring 2/3rds to pass legislation. It is not even a logical consequence of requiring a Parliamentary vote on prorogation.

            I will remind you that less than 40% of voters voted for Harper and his crew. So while he has a plurality, a lot of voters voted for other parties and they deserve to be heard, and they deserve to have the opportunity, through their representatives, to hold the government to account. I am deeply disturbed by people who seem so cavalier about Parliamentary oversight. You seem to think it is more important that Harper have 5 years of unquestioned rule than for any regard for democratic process. This is not a friendly dictatorship.

          • Well until you decide we have a Parliamentary system where the popular vote in the previous election shall determine the voting pattern on legislation, then you will have to accept that Parliament is supreme and we should proceed to enact legislation as we have in the past.

            Tradition says you would be inventing things if you proposed that because a government does not have a plurality of popular vote in our multi-party system, then that government does not have the legal right to pass legislation without never-ending consultation with the opposition.

          • Isn’t there some happy medium in terms of allowing some kind of fullsome debate? It is highly irregular to use closure on nearly every piece of legislation. If this is what they intend to do, why not send the MPs home and have Harper rule by executive proclamation? Even without closure, debates would not be unending. The opposition can choose to filibuster, but in the past they have seldom done so. Even so, just because the government has won a majority does not mean the opposition should be stripped of its opportunity to criticise legislation.

            The tools of closure and prorogation are given to the executive that they be used sparingly and responsibly. They are now abused as a matter of course, and that requires a curtailment of executive privilege. And I don’t say this as someone who opposes Harper. I opposed the abuse of executive power under Chretien, too. It has grown measurably worse over the intervening years. Something needs to change to bring the system back into balance.

  6. This prorogation is an essential part of my training regime for Governors General.

    I’ve found that at least a few repetitions are required. Only then can I be certain I have a well trained GG who will respond, without fail, as he/she has been taught.

    • Hey! Are you in there Scott?

  7. Should this guy regrettably stay around as PM for another decade or so i’ll predict that every convention, every rule that isn’t crystal clear, every process that has formerly depended upon the goodwill of honourable gentlefolk will need to be rewritten and super epoxied to the sole of Parliament’s metaphorical shoe…or throne or something, if it isn’t already “occupied”by someone or other by then.

    • Or we’re going to have a fairly horrifying Liberal/NDP tenure down the road. I am predicting paroxysms of outrage at the misconduct of that government by the rabid supporters of this one.

  8. If prorogation were denied and considered of vital interest, the government could call an election to break any deadlock. If they want to start a new session with a new agenda, perhaps they should put that agenda to the people rather than give us a basket full of turd-filled easter eggs.

    • So you are proposing that the majority government should shut down Parliament, call an election, and tell the people that they must because they could not get a two-third`s majority.

      His name is Harper not Clark.

      • If they felt that strongly about the need to prorogue. Remember, prorogation is not strictly necessary. A session of Parliament can last for a full four year mandate.

        Also, prorogation is not likely to be denied under reasonable circumstances (ie, not running away from confidence votes, trying to kill legislation and then blame it on the opposition, or to avoid scrutiny by the House for 8 months). You’re inventing things.

  9. You’re inventing things. No one proposed requiring 2/3rds to pass legislation. It is not even a logical consequence of requiring a Parliamentary vote on prorogation.

    I will remind you that less than 40% of voters voted for Harper and his crew. So while he has a plurality, a lot of voters voted for other parties and they deserve to be heard, and they deserve to have the opportunity, through their representatives, to hold the government to account. I am deeply disturbed by people who seem so cavalier about Parliamentary oversight. You seem to think it is more important that Harper have 5 years of unquestioned rule than for any regard for democratic process. This is not a friendly dictatorship.

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